Whenever I’m doing a school visit that involves teaching kids about primary sources there is always one aspect of that idea I find more fun to explore with them than any other. I call: it What Happened at Lunch? Here’s how it goes.
I ask the kids to tell me something of note that happened recently in the cafeteria. Was there a disagreement, an accident, did something funny take place? I choose one of the many inevitably raised hands. After hearing that person out, I then ask who was sitting nearest to the event. Then we hear from that person. Then I ask for a few different perspectives—we hear from someone who is a good friend of the person involved in the incident, someone who heard about it from a friend, and maybe even someone who is not so close to the person involved.
After doing this, I then have them orient me to the history of that day and that cafeteria (I don’t put it that way, but that’s what they’re doing). I try to get a sense of who usually sits where, where they were coming from and going to afterwards, if there was any fallout, and so on.
All of this work culminates in an interesting discussion about why someone may have the opinion they do. I ask them to think about how their feelings about the person involved affect the conclusions they draw. How are the whys as important as the whats? Working together, we make the best diplomatic sense of the situation and draw our conclusions of What Happened at Lunch.
This exercise is not unlike holiday conversations kids may frequently witness with their relatives. A group of family members get together for a wedding or Thanksgiving and start to either reminisce about an event or discuss some controversial family issue. Uncle Pete remembers things one way. Aunt Mary is sure if Pete knew the whole story he’d see it differently. Grampa Joe is certain that the others are wrong—he was there and he saw what happened. Cousin Sue knows Grampa Joe hasn’t got it right because she heard it from her mother, who never forgets a thing. Sound familiar?
When writers have the wonderful opportunity to interview the very people we are researching, we often discover unknown details and interesting perspectives on our topic. If we are lucky enough to be able to spend time with multiple subjects on one topic—as I was in the course of meeting eight of the Mercury 13 women whose story I tell in my forthcoming Almost Astronauts—the job gets exponentially trickier—and a whole lot more fun. Kids, like writers, always need to consider the source of their information. Jumping to conclusions is not an option. Neither is drawing conclusions without exhausting the angles and perspectives our sources offer.
What I like best about giving kids a glimpse into this kind of research is how it makes their eyes open wide to consider the real possibility that they don’t know the whole story of how something happened to someone until they are willing to consider a broader picture and ask those crucial whys in addition to the whats.